30 November 2008

Does the Damien Green arrest indicate a police state?

An intriguing question. And one to which we've had no shortage of answers.

The 'police state' argument was put most forcefully by Tony Benn on Channel 4 News on Friday night. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer today rejected Benn's notion that "Britain has become a police state" because in a real police state (like Zimabawe) he apparently wouldn't have been able to make that accusation without being arrested. That's debatable - the police don't always operate in such an obvious manner as that - but in any case it's a distortion of what Tony Benn was saying, which is that police arresting and searching the offices of an opposition front bench spokesperson is something that tends to happen in a police state. And Tony is right on that front... but I think the main issue here is more complex than the accusations and denials of 'police state Britain' suggest.

As I understand it, Damian Green was arrested due to suspicions that he was revealing leaked material which compromised national security. (The precise charge was some kind of arcane 18th century legislation regarding "suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office" but that surely must be a front for something deeper - if it isn't then the arrest really is a complete farce and the police deserve ridicule.)

"National security" is a vague term at best, but let's suppose Green was breaching the Official Secrets Act by revealing classified information. If that's the case then the police were acting correctly in arresting him. Parliamentary privilege, the special dispensation which offers immunity from slander, does not offer immunity from prosecution for breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Otherwise the Act would be meaningless as anyone who wanted to reveal a secret could just ask their MP to do it in the House of Commons and, as Hansard is a publicly available record, the official secret would no longer be secret.

If Green was not breaching the Official Secrets Act then it's unclear what offence he committed - or indeed why he was arrested. Leaking non-classified information is not an offence, and neither is embarrassing the government (fortunately).

If Green was breaching the OSA, it's not the police that are at fault (although the manner of Green's arrest was ludicrously over-the-top) - but, rather, the draconian nature of the OSA itself. This reactionary and outdated Act - which affects MPs as much as anybody else - is a bigger threat to the operation of democracy in the UK than any over-zealous police chief. And that, I think, is the issue which opponents of Green's arrest on all sides of Parliament would be best focusing their attention on.

29 November 2008


It's too early on Saturday morning - but I often find this a productive time to work. No emails coming in, the Mo Dutta show on Radio 2.... what more could you want? (Cup of tea? We can sort that.)

Just been knocked sideways by the idiocy of the 'thought for the day' slot at 6.15am (you should be able to hear it if you listen again - I think Mo has an unbelievably long show, from 4 to 8am). For those not familiar with the Radio 2 early morning religious slots, they are a hilariously toned down, Ikea flatpack version of the Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' - "designed not to be too intellectually taxing" would be a nice way of putting it. Anyway there was this chap on who was a Christian minister of some denomination - I didn't catch which one - and he said something along the lines of the following: living involves innumerable acts of faith. When we get in a plane we take it on "faith" that there's enough fuel in the tanks to land safely. When we drop our kids off at the school gate we take it on "faith" that they will be safe until the end of the school day... etc. And, apparently, faith in God is 'a logical extension' of this.


That's the worst argument I've ever heard for anything, ever. Richard Dawkins - or even Christopher Hitchens - would have had this guy for breakfast. 

When I get in a plane and assume that I'm going to make it through the journey alive (which actually I don't do - I have an irrational fear of flying. But never mind...) my confidence in the plane's safe passage - or the confidence I would have if I had a brain - is based on the fact that a plane company which experienced a high proportion of fatal accidents wouldn't be in business very long. Similarly, if I had kids, I'd assume that they would be safe at school, or else I could sue the school's ass. It doesn't always pay to be trusting - just look at the kids who were in care in Jersey, for example - but confidence in these situations is based on a rational assessment of the reliability of our institutions to do the job, whether they be market-based or political. 

Thus, it's no kind of "faith" at all. And it's nothing to do with religious faith, where the believer is asked to believe a load of stuff (for want of a better word) on the basis of no evidence other than the evidence offered up by the people who have a vested interest in you believing it (i.e. the church authorities, whose authority - and financial standing - is boosted, the more their congregation goes up.) 

I don't just believe that the plane will get me there safely because Ryanair, Easyjet or whoever tell me so. In fact I believe that the airlines are a load of bullshitters and I don't trust a word they say. So why believe in God because (for example) the Pope tells you to?

If the religious authorities want to increase their intellectual grip on the country they're going to have to come up with something better than this tosh. But it did provide a useful 20 minutes' diversion for me. 

24 November 2008

The PBR: 'Big Play' or 'small action'?

Back in my college days, the best part of 20 years ago, there was an arcade game in the common room which was originally a wrestling game (although it got loaded up with a different game every month or so - none of them wrestling, sadly) - with a joystick and two buttons for each player. One was a (small) button saying 'Small Action'. The other was a VERY large button saying 'Big Play'. This seems an appropriate metaphor for today's Pre-Budget Report. So, has Alistair Darling delivered a 'Big Play' or merely a 'small action'? Or, has he in fact thrown in the towel altogether? 

Temporary tax cuts make a lot of sense in terms of stimulating demand - provided that infrastructure spending is ramped up meanwhile, as generating additional employment through public spending will probably be more effective in getting us through an economic slump than tax measures. A VAT cut is reasonably sensible, although some of the commodities that the poorest people are most likely to buy - e.g. food - are zero-rated, and so will actually be relatively more expensive relative to other goods than they are at the moment. 

The proposal for a 45% income tax rate after the next election to help (a little bit) towards balancing the government books in the long run is very welcome, and perhaps marks the death of the faux-Tory mutant known as 'New Labour' and its replacement with 'Newer Labour' - which seems to be a closer relative of Old Labour than its immediate predecessor. Which is no bad thing. The extinction of the legacy of Tony Blair (and of Gordon Brown's own past self) is limited, but essential. 

But the £12 billion fiscal stimulus from the VAT cut, and the other smaller measures on the table, are really pretty small beer. They'll help a bit but we'll need a lot more in either higher spending or lower tax if we're gonna get out of a major slump without experiencing the kind of mass unemployment that wrecked huge swathes of the economy in the 1980s. 

I still don't know if the government has really grasped the gravity of the situation. Its growth projections for 2010 are wildly optimistic, and out of line with all independent forecasts. In all likelihood the economy will still be contracting in early 2010, at least. But I guess these numbers can always be revised later, and the stimulus can be boosted in the March Budget if need be. 

The borrowing figures are historically high, but then it's a historically big recession, and it's gonna hit the UK harder than most because we rely a lot on financial services. This isn't ideal but the government is making the best of a bad job. The Tory plan of just relying on automatic fiscal stabilisers and funding tax cuts through cutting spending isn't a stimulus package; it's just more of the same crap they were pushing between 1997 and 2005. Osborne was shit in the opposition post-PBR response. The Tories must be crapping themselves now... if polls this week show Labour ahead in the polls (or at least even pegging) election fever is gonna mount. And this time, Brown would be a fool to bottle out. 

So it was a 'small action' but with scope for more down the line if need be. However, Vincent Cable hit the nail on the head pretty well on Channel 4 News tonight (as so often - why is this man not leading the Lib Dems? They would probably be at 30% or more in the polls if he was.) The main priority is to get banks lending to businesses - not necessarily at 2007 levels (that may be impossible) but at much higher levels than what's happening at the moment, which is feeble. If the govt needs to go for full nationalisation of a major bank or two to do that, then go for it. A modest fiscal stimulus ain't gonna do jack if the entire credit system remains seized up despite the re-capitalisation of Lloyds TSB/HBOS/RBS. 

18 November 2008

Labour now SURPASSING 2005 levels of popularity(?)

Tonight's Evening Standard - a craphouse of a paper to be sure, but I just had to buy it...

Labour have closed to within 3 points in the latest MORI poll. Labour 37, Tories 40, Lib Dems 12 (12! That's f***ing useless. How long can Clegg last?)

At only 3 points down, Labour would actually have a reasonable chance of squeaking through with an overall majority - due to the insane bias of the electoral system, as I wrote in the last post. 

Gordon Brown must really be starting to fancy his chances now. What price a spring 2009 election? If Labour is level pegging or better by February, it's got to be on the cards. 

And if Tony Blair is anywhere out there - remember when you got 35% of the vote in 2005? Gordon might end up beating you. Ha ha. 

Right, that's enough of the polls for a bit. 

12 November 2008

Labour now back to 2005 levels of popularity

Hello any Blairites still out there. Remember when yer man limped his party home with 35% of the vote in the '05 election? And remember when you all said Gordon Brown was going to be bloody awful, we'd miss Tony when he was gone, etc.? And remember the several months of '08 when we were agreeing with you? 

What a difference a financial crisis makes. OK, so the Sunday Telegraph had a poll with Labour on only 30% - but no-one reads that except 'Van Patten' who sometimes posts on here, and he's a mentalist. Lookee at The Times yesterday and we find a Populus poll with the following numbers: 

Labour - 35%
Tories - 41%
Lib Dems - 16%

That's Labour back on 35% - and possibly with further to climb. The difference from '05, of course, is that the Tories are on 41%, not 33%. It's likely - although not certain - that if the country voted like that at the general election, Cameron would have a small majority. But any further tightening and the current bias towards Labour in the electoral system means we are definitely into hung parliament territory. 

Or even, the nightmare scenario for the Tories of Labour being perhaps 3% down in the popular vote and still winning a majority... that's the insanity of first-past-the-post for you, and time was when the Conservatives gave a rat's ass about that kind of thing. There were a lot of people talking about the 'elective dictatorship' in the mid-70s when Harold Wilson had a Commons majority (just) on 39% of the vote. Fast forward to a govt elected with 35% of the vote and we hear... not a peep out of the Tories. Crazy. 

And even the Lib Dems seem pretty quiet about electoral reform these days. They're too busy trying to cut taxes and spending. Monetarism 30 years too late, guys! Get with the program! Seriously, does anybody know what planet Nick Clegg is on? This guy has to be the biggest disappointment as a political leader since David Owen, at least. (Ming Campbell wasn't a disappointment because no-one expected him to be any good in the first place.) Vince Cable should lead a (metaphorical) assassination attempt on Clegg, because otherwise the Lib Dems are gonna be back to a complete rump party with a handful of seats and even less influence than they have now. Sad, very sad. 

07 November 2008

Meanwhile, back in "the old country"...

(i.e. the UK, rather than Ireland, in this particular case)... we have good news and bad news (depending on which side of the fence you sit. 

Firstly, an against-the-odds victory for Labour in the Glenrothes by-election. Big majority over the SNP. Brown understandably bigging it up - "a vote of confidence in our handling of the economic crisis", etc. And I would argue, to an extent, it is. 

But there might be a bit more going on here: there are now 2 ways to make a protest vote in a Scottish by-election. You can protest against the UK govt or against the Scottish govt, which is a minority SNP administration. There may have been some of the latter going on (although if people wanted to make a double protest vote, why did the Tories and the Lib Dems both do utterly lamely?)

Secondly, that Labour won a by-election in a safe Labour seat doesn't mean they are suddenly favourites to win a general election. Labour is still a minimum of 8 points down in the national vote. If it had been a big win in a Labour or Tory marginal, now that would have been a big story. 

Still, one senses the momentum is with Labour at the moment. Brown has been looking happy to be in the job for the first time since summer '07. He knows there is a fighting chance, and he will enjoy the fight.

The downside of this, of course, is that it reduces the amount of flak that Labour takes for many of its crappier policies, of which one of the most shit-stained is ID cards. The rather duff Jacqui Smith was at it this morning, saying that "people can't wait for the introduction of ID cards". Yep, and turkeys can't wait for Christmas either. The sad thing is, given that opinion polls show a substantial proportion of the country in favour of this crazy money-waster, she's probably telling the truth. But hey, just because there are a lot of idiots around who want to spend a great deal of money on eradicating our basic freedoms with an ineffectual (because easily forged!) measure doesn't make it right. 

There should be a referendum on this policy (it's a fair cop - I'd abide by the result.) There should be a referendum on a national DNA database (introduced in one fell swoop for everyone rather than the present policy of just taking DNA from people charged with an offence, even if eventually found innocent). Hell, there should be a referendum on a lot of things. Until then, NO2ID is our best bet - please give generously. 

05 November 2008

Brilliant summary of why Obama won

Ah... sore head this afternoon. Up until almost 5am, and one too many vodka martinis.

I've been a critic of BBC North America editor Justin Webb at several points during the election campaign, but he correctly identified an excellent potted summary of the four main reasons Obama won - from the surprising source of Daniel Finkelstein at The Times. Do read it - it's here.

I think this is probably the best I've ever seen Finkelstein write. Maybe, like Peter Oborne and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, he is becoming that rare and treasured thing - a right-wing commentator with a brain that he actually uses.

Good Morning America!

I'm just up and making myself a cup of "Good Morning America" - y'all want some?

Thank f*** America did the right thing. A popular vote margin of about 5% - well within the margin of error of the projections from recent opinion polls. Maybe people will believe the polls a bit more next time. What an amazing contrast with Bush's election in 2000 - whilst there will no doubt be some accusations of theft going around, those making the accusations will look pretty laughable.

Some quick thoughts on where the US goes from here:

McCain's concession speech sounds like the "nasty button" has been switched off - I guess he realised there was no point wallowing in vitriol at this point. "The failure is mine", he says - yes, but not for the reasons he thinks. He ran a hard-right campaign to appeal to a Republican base which certainly came out to vote, but he couldn't capture enough swing voters to come anywhere near Obama in terms of vote share - especially not with Sarah Palin on the ticket.

The Senate results look like there are going to be 41 Republicans - theoretically enough to block legislation by 'filibuster'. However, if a legislative programme with popular support (e.g. health care reform) is blocked by those Senate Republicans despite being passed in other branches of govt, there is a high probability that the Republicans will get their asses kicked in the 2010 midterm elections - with several more Senate seats last contested in 2004 up for grabs, a further shift to the Democrats looks likely. The House of Representatives is wildly Democratic.

Just heard on the news that McCain described Sarah Palin as one of the "best campaigners he's ever seen"(?!) - maybe he's been working for the Democrats all along.

Will be very interesting to see whether the Republicans do a "post-1997 Tories" and degenerate into an extremist rump party. I certainly hope so, although they may have a bit more sense. If you meet a Republican, push "Palin for 2012" as hard as you can at every opportunity.

Election turnout 64% - the highest since 1964 in the US, but still seems low compared with many countries. I wonder if the denominator includes adults who can't vote: prisoners and felons for example (of which there are a huge number)?


2.30 am: that's all folks. Ohio just called called for Obama. Given that pretty much all the states to be called so far have gone according to most projections, I can't see Obama losing this. I'm following the election on the BBC site and FiveThreeEight updates. Watched 5 minutes of live footage but Dimbleby was so pants that I went back to just following the text updates.

Anyway, congratulations to America for making the right choice. You may have saved the world.
I think I'm gonna watch my DVD of Inland Empire to celebrate.

04 November 2008

live: watching and waiting

Just coming up to the close of the first polls. BBC coverage looks incredibly dull - haven't they pensioned the persistently awful David Dimbleby off yet? Stories of voting machines breaking down in areas of Virginia with high ethnic minority populations - hopefully not decisive but worrying all the same.

Looks pretty dull, so I'll come back to you in a couple of hours or so.

03 November 2008

Please let it be "Good Morning America" on Wednesday

Well, after what seems like the majority of this year's blog posts, we're only 26 hours away from the US election night coverage. I'll be staying up for the duration, maybe with a vodka martini in my hand, probably writing the odd blog post. This is a long post, as we're at a turning point in world history. Turning points make me nervous... I get verbal diarreoaha. (A word I can't spell). Sorry kids.

I was going to be at a party in Oxford tomorrow night but work pressures make it inadvisable for me to take the required amount of time out of my schedule to get over there and back again (really sorry, Chris). In fact I'm probably being a damn fool staying up to watch it tomorrow night - but f*** it. This is history in the making.

Democratic presidential victories have been thin on the ground in my lifetime. I was born about a month after the disastrous landslide defeat of the excellent George McGovern by the crook Richard Nixon in 1972, and was too young to remember anything about Jimmy Carter's victory in '76. There then followed three crushing defeats. It was the 1980s, and by definition, the height of Bad Politics (and Fashion).

I got luckier in 1992 with Bill Clinton; I remember frantically trying to finish an essay late at night (this was a very common occurence in Oxford, almost as common as being whacked out of my brain), I turned on my little black and white CRT TV, and there the bastard was. Difficult to tell a 'red state' from a 'blue state' in black and white (and does anybody else get confused by the fact the blue party is the 'left' party? Who came up with this lunacy?) but I knew from the commentary that Clinton had done it. That, plus the stupid Republican American woman (that old Guess Who song just came into my brain - "American Woman" - some nice guitar distortion there, folks) crying in the college bar. Her misery was our ecstasy - at least until it transpired that Clinton was barely more able to get major legislation through Congress than was Jimmy Carter, and while he managed to get re-elected (which Carter sadly didn't, despite being up against a lunatic with Alzheimer's) he spent most of his time passing crap legislation given to him by Newt Gingrich, and getting impeached. OK so he was there, which meant that a Republican fascist (or Ross Perot) wasn't there, but it was still a big disppointment.

Then we had 2000 - perhaps the biggest downer of all time. A denial of democracy - a stolen election. Banana Republic, USA - not just A Department Store. Al Gore - cast out into the nether regions ( where he eventually returned as a remarkably effective environmental campaigner). The "child-president" as Hunter S Thompson called him (shit, Hunter - why did you pull a gun on yourself, you stupid f***wit? You would have been bloody LOVING it by now, mate. It's a drag being an atheist 'cos I can't say "hope you're up there watching all this unfold" with a straight face...) GWB - Grand Dubya Bullshit. The plundering of America's assets for defense contractors and the super-rich. Environmental disaster. ANOTHER stolen election in 2004. OK, John Kerry was no way the greatest presidential candidate ever, but what in F***'s name was George Bush? a human equivalent of those polystyrene wotsits that come in couriered packages. Cheap filler for others to exploit. Jeez, in November '04 things looked fuckin lame x 2 million... Hunter, on 2nd thoughts I can understand why you pulled the trigger, mate.

But then, just when Not Expected That Much, events took a good turn in America. Iraq was the Vietnam Mark II that so many of us had predicted. Bloody awful for any of the poor bastards from Iraq itself, Britain or America that were out there, but good news for US politics. Bush's 2nd term fell apart in ways that made Clinton and Reagan's 2nd terms look like perfection itself. In 2006 the Democrats recaptured Congress and the Republicans disowned Dubya. Predictions were that any likely Republican challenger would get his (and it always was a 'he'...) ass kicked come the Nov 08 presidential election.

Then, in 2008, events played out damn weirdly. Firstly, who's this sophisticated young punk from Illinois challenging Hillary Clinton's husband-given right to the Democratic nomination? Step forward Barack Obama and the most powerful grassroots campaign in known history, outstripping even the gigantic efforts of McGovern in '72. Building on the inspirational groundwork of the Howard Dean '04 campaign, which failed, but which showed the way forward in terms of building campaign finance and momentum through millions of small donations rather than relying solely on huge handouts from big corporates. It took months and months, but Clinton's more traditional campaign was beaten off, and Obama went forward to the national stage.

Meanwhile, in the GOP ("Grand Old Party", apparently - surely the most pretentious party nickname in the world?) strange things were storing. A genuinely charismatic dingbat called Mike Huckabee made the early running in New Hampshire before being swept aside by John McCain, who, in mid-07, had looked all washed up. The brief window of apparent success for the Iraq "surge" strategy which McCain had backed all the way, temporarily transformed him into some kind of apparent visionary and there he was, winning primary after primary, with Huckabee in a fairly distant second and the others - Mitt Romney, ex-actor Fred Thompson, the laughably inept Rudy Guiliani - off the map.

I got a bit bored with the contest in the summer - between the end of the primaries and the conventions - because no-one over here seemed to be covering the damn thing anyway. But I came back with a jolt when Sarah Palin got the V-P nomination for the Reps. The initial surge in the polls for the McCain/Palin ticket made a lot of people over in the UK very scared and for a couple of weeks it looked as if history was about to repeat itself - and we were in for another Ronald Reagan style triumph of reactionary fears over progressive hopes. Fortunately, normality ("normalcy?") reasserted itself as we discovered that even in the USA, being an ignorant gun-toting fascist is no automatic guarantee of success in a post-Nixon, post-Reagan, post-Bush landscape. (And that was just John McCain...) The more Sarah Palin was revealed to be a fucking MORON, the more ecstatic I was. The more John McCain came to resemble Michael Foot's evil Yankee twin, the more happy I felt.

So here we are, on the threshold of one of three options:

1) a new dawn for America. A bit like what they got with FDR, got to some extent (although with the huge F***-off mistake of Vietnam with JFK/LBJ), and should have got with Carter - (if he had had half a clue about how to run his administration without pissing off just about everybody in Congress who was supposed to have been on his side). And like they were never going to get with Clinton.
2) Jimmy Carter Mark II. I'll expand on what I mean by this in future posts if Obama really does win, but briefly: I think his biggest danger is that he ends up not being able to pull enough strings to effect major policy changes in the notoriously sclerotic American political system. The worst scenario would have a demoralised and distant Obama having his ass kicked by Huckabee or, god help us, Palin, in 2012... kind of a sick repeat of 1980... but let's not worry about that for now.
3) Civil war in the US. This is the most extreme what awaits if McCain somehow contrives to steal the election despite being 6 or 7 points down in the popular vote. More likely of course is that FOX news comes up with some conservative academic to explain that there's been a massive "Bradley effect", there are a few demonstrations in New York City, some people get shot and the US resigns itself to President McMugabe and Vice President Michael Palin.

Let's hope for all our stakes it's option 1. If you're a US citizen and you're reading this it probably means you were enough in agreement with the basic thesis presented here to make it to the end, which means:


(see, I've even color-coded it for you. And used your spelling of 'colour' - I'm a considerate chap. )

As George Clooney once directed:

Good night, and good luck.